I am writing this memoir from the perspective of a tourist from the Philippines. Before coming to Bali, I thought that Bali was another beach destination, like Boracay or Phuket. No, it seems that I was mistaken. Bali is much more than a beach. Let me show you.
Light enhances art, one cannot isolate a structure from its natural environment.
I remembered this paraphrase from a movie the minute we arrived in our hotel, Royal Bali Beach Club in Jimbaran. As we sat down drinking our welcome drinks, my eyes were drawn up to the thatched roof made of alang-alang (cogon). Three levels up from the ground floor lobby, the bamboo poles and burnished wood frames formed a geometric design that glowed in the warm lights. Hindu stone carvings, intricate wood carvings on the walls, frangipani flowers in vases, Balinese masks, gargoyles & water lilies all combined with the thatched alang-alang roof to create a tropical, Balinese ambiance. Despite my fatigue, I felt stimulated by so much artistic expression.
On our way to St. Francis Xavier church in Kuta the next day, I finally saw Bali in the daytime. I found it strange that nearly all the structures (except those with thatched roofing) had the same tiled roofing in terracotta color. I can almost believe the Balinese deliberately created a themed, unified look like what the Parisians or the Israelites in Jerusalem did. I think this gives the city its unique character. Did you know that Bali has the longest art street in the world?
On our way up to Ubud which is considered the cultural and artistic center of Bali, the “art street” passed through several towns that specialized in different arts: Tohpati (batik), Batubulan (stone carving), Mas (wood carving), Celuk (silver & gold), Ubud (paintings and galleries, art market), Sukawati (art market). It’s an artist’s haven! Three days were not enough for us but we were happy with our souvenirs, especially in Windu Sari (Batubulan), Body and Soul and Just Jeans factory outlets in (Seminyak), and in Sukawati market, all with discounts. Always bargain in Bali, as much as 70% if you can otherwise walk away and see if they will give in.
Did I mention that ricefields and rice terraces surrounded these art towns? The Balinese originally built their rice paddies to surround their water temple, and thanks to the subak irrigation system inherited from the Hindus, rice is planted all year round. We couldn’t forget those ducks quacking in the rice paddies though. Why, they were the same ducks that were deep-fried in Indonesian spices and landed on our lunch plates! Yummy. Interestingly, the Indonesian bebek (duck) tasted different from its Peking duck cousin. If you do come to Bali, a visit to Bebik Bengil in Ubud for lunch or dinner is worth it. The Balinese gardens, rice fields, traditional Balinese bamboo music are as exquisite as the duck special and fried ice cream for desert, at reasonable prices.
At first, we were not so crazy to rush to the beaches as we were familiar with fine sand or coral beaches in the Philippines. However, on our third night, we headed to Jimbaran beach for a seafood dinner and got hooked ever since. Who could resist eating grilled seafood outdoors at night with the crashing waves nearby, sand under our feet, candlelights, twinkling lights in the far distance and Bali Kratom stars shining in the sky? On our last night at Fortuin restaurant, there was a Balinese wedding reception next door. We witnessed a traditional Balinese dance, a modern belly dance, a fire dance, and heard some Balinese songs and English songs like Autumn leaves. There were Hindu-Balinese decorations among the tables and chairs and, according to the waiter, the wedding happened the day before but the celebration will be for several days. A foreigner and a Balinese were getting married so perhaps they had two different kinds of celebration?
Speaking of beaches, there is one beach that is not found in any Bali map. It’s called Dreamland and owned by Tommy Suharto, the ex-president’s son. As the name suggests, Tommy got the best beach in this massive real estate project called Dreamland. Situated between Jimbaran and Uluwatu, Dreamland beach is more picturesque, its sands finer than the ones in nearby Jimbaran, Kuta or even Nusa Dua (this last one came from Ngurah our driver.) It was in Dreamland that I saw surfers up-close. It was fascinating to watch them glide in and out of the waves because they made it seem so easy. Did they experience an athlete’s “high” surging over those waves? Maybe. In my experience as a runner, it was always exhilarating to run at top speed with the wind blowing all over my body.
Soon, it was sunset. Watching the sunset in Kuta or Dreamland beach was a special event for our family since we live in the city which is far from any beach. We were glad that the beaches in Bali were free and not crowded with people. I can’t explain why but it felt like food for our soul to catch a sunset by the beach.
For me, Uluwatu in southwestern Bali had the most dramatic cliff views over the Indian ocean. The 70 metre cliff scene was a little like the Twelve Apostles in Melbourne, Australia which faced the Southern Ocean. After half an hour of walking by the trail we were rewarded with spectacular views! There were many monkeys around, but don’t be fooled or frightened that the monkeys will steal your stuff. That’s what the locals will tell you but I refused to leave my sunglasses behind as my eyes were sensitive to the sun. Well, they were cheap sunglasses anyway but hey, at least I didn’t frown in our photo shoots and nothing happened to us.